Achieving consistency in riding is not a matter of waving a wand and then simply hanging on for the ride. It's more than learning a few "tricks" and hoping they all fall together in effortless synchronization. In fact, riding smoothly through transitions left and right, up and down while maintaining a steady rhythm and impulsion, outline and self-carriage is nothing to be scoffed at!
If you have tried to put together a series of movements, you are probably familiar with how you need to be aware of the horse's balance. You likely know that you need to actively maintain the horse's engagement through the various bends and figures in order to maintain a rhythmical, uniform look and feel to your ride. You understand that in horseback riding, in particular, a lack of excitement is a highly desired state.
You see, it's because what we interpret as calm or routine might be just the right thing for horses and their riders.
The opposite - confusion, frenzy, turmoil - all paint a picture (and feeling) of discomfort and disarray. In riding, excitement manifests in ways that indicate discomfort for the horse. When a horse bucks, rushes or pins his ears, he is sending out messages that he is not feeling good in his work. The rider that has to make a spectacle of riding by using loud or overly active aids or voice cues certainly gives the spectator something to look at, but is inevitably not riding for the benefit of the horse.
What It Takes to Be Steady When You Ride
Boring is very underrated, but highly valuable in horseback riding. You might be tempted to think that you are watching paint dry when you see a horse flowing effortlessly from one figure to the next, setting a consistent rhythm regardless of what he is doing, and a rider that is just "sitting there". People might complain that riding (especially flat work) is not a spectator sport and therefore not deserving of attention.
The truth is that both the horse and the rider have to achieve a very high level of proficiency to portray such composure and tranquility. To appear to be doing nothing, the rider and horse must both make continual adjustments to their balance, in order to stay in balance while they progress in space, together, through various movements. How do they do it? Here are a few ideas.
1. Maintain energy level
Impulsion is the first main component of any riding. Keeping the energy at a steady level requires a horse and rider that are adaptable and quick to respond to changes of balance. Too much energy, and the horse falls to the forehand. Too little energy, and the hind end disengages and the horse again falls to the forehand. You need to ride strategically in order to keep the energy at the most effective level that helps the horse maintain a comfortable balance.
Use half-halts to prevent the horse from running out from underneath you. If you can aid quickly enough, and your horse is responsive enough, you will be able to control the leg speed but allow the energy to be transferred over the horse's topline. You can develop a rounder, bouncier gait by half-halting so the energy doesn't just translate into leg speed.
On the other hand, you may need to use leg aids to help the horse increase his energy level when coming to a more difficult movement. For example, horses tend to often "suck back" when coming into a corner or turn. They might shorten their hind leg stride length and hollow the back, resulting into a bracing movement through the corner. To counteract the drop in energy, use both legs to urge engagement of both hind legs. Maintain the rhythm that has already been established by not allowing the horse's legs to slow down in the approach to the corner.
2. Maintain straightness
The moment the horse loses straightness, the rhythm and energy level is affected negatively. The straighter you can keep your horse, the easier it will be to establish energy and impulsion. So in a way, impulsion and straightness are interchangeable much like the chicken and the egg - which one is needed first to improve the other?
You must know your horse to answer that question. Some horses lose straightness because they lack impulsion. So the secret to helping those horses move straighter is to get them to work better from the hind end. Other horses lose impulsion because they over-bend in one direction, or brace into stiffness in the other. These horses have plenty of leg movement, but they drift out or fall in, perhaps because they have too much energy that is ending up on the front legs. These horses would need half-halts and secure aids that encourage them to keep their body in alignment while they move.
Straightness isn't something that anyone is born with. Both the horse and the rider likely have a stronger and weaker side and the resulting movement is determined by how the rider can control both her and her horse's crookedness. This takes time (years?) to develop but yes, you can chip away at it slowly but surely and one day. realize that your horse is tracking straight on the lines and bends.
Constant communication is one of the key ways to maintain consistency. Through half-halts before and after each maneuver, the horse/rider team shares in the knowledge of things to come. Use leg and rein aids for bend, turns and to reinforce half-halts.
Use your voice to reinforce your aids, and always be sure to acknowledge your horse's efforts while you ride. The quiet rider is the one who is communicating subtly but regularly enough to avoid any surprises.
The confident horse is the one who indicates that he knows his job and what is expected. You will know that you're on the right track when someone says that it looks like you're doing nothing, while the horse is floating along with an active regularity seemingly under his own initiative.
Well, it is true that (as close to perfect as possible) practice makes perfect. There is no replacement for practice, and all you have to do is get out there and put the time in. Well, maybe it isn't quite that easy.
You have to put in the best quality rides in that you can, over time. Maybe that means that you need more than one lesson a week with a qualified instructor. Or maybe it means that you and your friend can help each other out by being an "eye on the ground" and giving each other feedback. However you want to approach the concept of "effective" practice, make sure that you develop a routine for the benefit of both your body and your horse.
Here is your "homework":
Think about your rides and how you might be able to develop more regularity and steadiness in what you do. Even if you don't maintain "perfect" rhythm and stride length through your whole ride, see if you can be steady for longer and longer periods of time. As you and your horse get better at maintaining rhythm, energy and stride length, make things more challenging by introducing more transitions and changes of bend. Work on developing flow, swing, bounciness, roundness, and all those things that make your horse snort and release through the body even more.
And let us know in the comments below, how things went and what your horse thought about it.
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More articles relating to developing steady:
How to Ride the Stumble Out of Your Horse: Do you have a horse that seems to regularly trip or stumble, either in the front or hind end?
How to ‘Flow” From the Trot to Walk: Although we rely on our hands too much and initiate all movements from the horse’s mouth, there are many alternate aids we can go to.
Why You Don’t Need to Panic When Your Horse ‘Falls Apart’: Even if you are not thinking “panic”, your body might be communicating it by either being completely passive or too reactive after the horse is off balance.
When Good Riding Instruction Becomes Great: How much can an instructor really do to help a rider improve?
‘Go and No': The Connection Between Forward and Half-Halt in Horse Riding: How to develop the two seemingly opposite aids.